Never So Few (1959): John Sturges’ WWII Actioner and Romantic Melodrama, Starring Sinatra and Lollobrigida

John Sturges’ Never So Few is neither effective as WWII actioner nor as a romantic melodrama, despite the casting of Frank Sinatra and Italian Gina Lollobrigida in the leads.

This failed mixture of genres, plugged by long and boring plot, is mostly remembered today for elevating the stature of Steve McQueen to major stardom, though he was cast in secondary role.

The overwritten script is loosely based upon an actual OSS Detachment 101 incident, reported in a 1957 novel by Tom T. Chmabers.

Sinatra’s character of Captain Tom Reynolds is inspired by a real OSS officer and, later, Illinois sheriff, U.S. Navy Lt. Meredith Rhule.

The film diverges from the novel in that Reynolds dies in the book but survives in the film and will presumably go on to marry Carla after the war.

Shot on location in Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon, the film follows Captain Tom Reynolds (Sinatra) and his fellow OSS operatives, Captain Grey Travis (Peter Lawford) and Corporal Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen), as they leading Kachin natives fighting the Japanese in Burma.

In 1943 Burma, a unit of US and British forces joins with the native Kachin to hold back the Japanese Army. The unit, under the joint command of American captain Tom C. Reynolds and British captain Danny De Mortimer (Richard Johnson), with guidance from Kachin leader Nautaung, are hampered by limited supplies and lack of medical care.

After an ambush mission during which the unit wipes out a Japanese squad, Tom’s aide, Bye Ya, is wounded. Lack of morphine motivates Tom to shoot Bye Ya (Guy Lee). Tom then angrily contacts army headquarters in Calcutta, where he and Danny are met by Corporal Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen), their driver.

The men meet OSS regional commanding officer Col. Fred Parkson (Robert Bray), who introduces them to wealthy merchant Nikko Regas (Paul Heinreid) and his girlfriend, Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). Tom is immediately attracted to Carla, but she mocks his provincial American background.

Tom demands a doctor for the unit but Parkson informs him that medical officers are in short supply and it will be their responsibility to secure a doctor. Parkson then orders the men to take two weeks leave, but Tom refuses unless the Kachin are also granted leave. Tom asks to have the brave and bright Ringa reassigned as his new aide.

Tom and Carla are joined by Danny for a tour of the Himalayan villages. During the tour, Danny falls ill and is misdiagnosed as having typhus by military doctor Capt. Grey Travis (Peter Lawford); Danny insists he has malaria.  Nikko cautions Carla of the unreliability of Americans, when he notices her attraction to Tom.

After Nikko departs for China, Carla spends more time with Tom, who insists that she leave Nikko because he intends to marry her. Tom and the others return to the Kachin hills to spend Christmas with the troops, but their celebration is interrupted when the Japanese unexpectedly attack and wound Tom.

Ringa learns that the strike was planned with inside information. Billingsley, and a native Shan girl have betrayed them. When Nautaung orders the girl to be shot and Billingsley to be “put into the Circle” and ritually executed, Travis protests vigorously, but Tom insists that the dangers of jungle warfare demand harsh measures.

Travis then sends Tom and the other soldiers wounded in the attack to the air base hospital in Calcutta to recover. Parkson orders Tom to destroy an airfield in Ubachi, near the Chinese border. When Tom objects that his small unit lacks the supplies to make a successful attack, Parkson assures him they will receive supplies from Chinese allies.

Carla visits Tom and invites him to stay with her when he has recovered. Tom goes to see Carla, but is disappointed to find her in a luxurious hotel, which she admits is at Nikko’s expense. Tom departs, after criticizing Carla’s inability to put aside her desire for luxury.

When the supply convoy fails to arrive, Tom decides they must go ahead with the attack anyway. Although the mission is successful, Nautaung and several Americans are killed, suggesting that renegade Chinese from across the border were responsible. Tom decides to pursue the renegades, despite Danny’s protest. The men find the Chinese camp at nightfall and locating their supply tent, come upon several dozen American dog tags and personal effects. Shocked and outraged, Tom realizes the renegades have been killing American soldiers.

Tom promotes Ringa to Second Lieutenant and places him in operational command, then proceeds to Calcutta where he is placed under house arrest on a charge of murder. Carla visits Tom and confesses that Nikko is with intelligence and she is his assistant. Carla advises Tom to say that battle fatigue caused his defiant incursion into China, but he refuses.

Parkson and Gen. Sloan, visit Tom, who shows them one of the Chinese warrants. Sloan advises Tom not to mention the warrants and demands that he apologize to the representative of the Chinese government. Tom refuses and offers Sloan the American dog tags found at the renegade camp. Military psychiatrists are then sent to examine Tom for mental discharge, but Tom refuses to cooperate.

The Chinese representative arrives, and Sloan sides with Tom, demanding that the warlord who has killed Americans be reported and apology issued from China to the U. S. Tom reunites with Carla before returning to his Kachins.